The Big Picture (The good, the bad and the ugly in Homeless World Sacramento) Part I
If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? -- William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
Too, among the homeless are a great many who are asocial – who will steal or destroy things without a moment’s consideration of others who are hurt by these actions. There are also many charming con men “out here” who use lies and deception to get what they want, and think all others are morally just as they are -- but soft, somehow, and without the skill-set to match these con artists’ supposed rates of conniving ”success.” Others are rascals who take sadistic pleasure in what mayhem they stir up. The least-mature of these adult rascals litter and write on wet cement and mess up public restrooms and giggle when they poop on the sides of buildings at night.
There are actions and antics by many of my brethren that are ground for all the hate that gets directed toward homeless folk. Any time an article or Marcos Breton column about the homeless is published in the Bee, the usual haters whip out their keyboards to pound out mean-spirited spiels as online comments. No doubt, these haters are representative of a large number of people in our metropolis -- who feel similarly to Michele Bachmann who not long ago said, “if the sick and homeless want healthcare, they should get a job and make their own way.” Yes, well. It’s not that easy.
While a good many of the Sacramento homeless could never acquire a veneer of gentility such to be made ready for a pleasant dinner party or a spirited discussion of Spinoza, they think and feel in complete abundance and their lives – our lives – are as much an entire universe of joy and drama and meaning as any more-conventional citizen’s. We are real – though, for some of us, we’re not always altogether sure of that in the beat-up condition we find ourselves.
Among the homeless, too, is an overabundance of people who don’t have a grasp of how the world operates; they don’t see “the big picture.” They believed that one nutty Gospel Mission preacher [who lasted for just the one night] who told us the sun goes around the earth or that people once shared the planet with dinosaurs or that Obama is the antiChrist. These homeless fellows' knowledge isn’t enough encyclopedic to warn them away from the complete nonsense that often comes along disguised as information. They are insecured, left gullible, and this vulnerability leaves them wide open to being taken advantage of (or of being rendered homeless in the first place).
Yet others have very simply fallen out of their lives in one of the many ways that can happen. The money ran out and they are broken. A consumptive sequence of events has left them bedraggled and without resources.
But there are great virtues in Homeless World, too. One -- completely contrary to the stereotype that the homeless are all lay-abouts unwilling to work – is that homeless guys wanting to work always outnumber the jobs that can be found. There is always a desire for work and no job that comes along goes unfilled.
So-called “Daily Bread” casual-labor jobs that Loaves & Fishes used to offer (and may still, on a limited basis) get filled, always – except in the case of “employers” who gain the reputation of cheating guys out of what pay is owed. Casual jobs at Loaves & Fishes that are paid using $5 McDonald’s giftcards are always filled. Indeed, may homeless people volunteer to work for NOTHING at Loaves & Fishes on a scheduled basis. Some guys work twenty, thirty hours a week. And these NO-PAY jobs are competitive (though subscribing to the nutty communist politics of Loaves gives one a leg up in getting one of the positions).
At the mission, if there is a shortage of guys assigned kitchen duty, there is no problem rustling up volunteers to work, with no benefit forthcoming to these instant recruits for doing so.
Famously, too, homeless guys collect bottles and cans for recycling. There’s neither reluctance nor embarrassment to do that. Some fellows have mapped out favored collection spots and tell me they feel well compensated by the recycling business for their efforts. Other guys collect cans but complain they don't make much from it. Other guys are hooked up with folks who will use them to hold signs on the sidewalk at intersections. Often, in these Hard Times, these jobs -- which in years past had paid OK -- are now npaid under the table at less than minimum wage.
Other guys, may not think of it that way, but they truly have launched themselves as small-business men. A couple skilled guys I know get work in Granite Bay providing the manpower for home-improvement projects. Another fellow gets permission from businessmen and homeowners to pass his metal-detector equipment over a property to find treasure. By some prior arrangement, this fellow either gets paid for what is found, or gets a split of what coins, jewelry or whatever is unearthed.
Another guy I know frequently does yardwork for an appreciative homeowner. Yet another guy has set himself up washing businesses’ windows. Other fellows used to use Labor Ready for temporary manual labor, but that agency is no longer in business or open to homeless clients. Other agencies sometimes can be talked into giving a homeless fellow a chance. Doors get knocked on; it's rare, but sometimes opportunity follows.
The Union Gospel Mission, as part of its Rehab program, used to be able to arrange opportunities for many of the graduates to get employment. In recent years, UGM's efforts at helping find jobs has been significantly waylaid by the bad economy.
It’s a wacky, dirty world – homelessness is. But primarily, it is achingly poignant. Even the biggest scoundrels in this world have sides to their personalities that are funny or wistful or oddly -- but fully -- generous. We get by with little, endure suffering, live in the midst of a lot of craziness and there is something weirdly OK and distressingly habitual that settles into being our routine. We become like the frog in the beaker where the water temperature rises so slowly he doesn’t notice that he's being slowly boiled unto death. In many ways, our life, our future is escaping from us – drifting away like a gentle patch of steam.
But even when weeks pass by without the simplest "luxury" -- a cup of Starbuck's or clean socks -- just as with anyone, the circumstance that we’re in NOW is our life. It's where attachments and friends and challenges and intrigue meld into a daily drama. In this -- behold! -- we are just like conventional citizens. No different, whatever.
Update: The second in this series relating the Big Picture of what it feels like to be homeless has been posted and can be found here: "Big Picture Part II: The indignities and precarity of being rendered homeless in Sacramento"